Before I shifted into looking for hospitality jobs london, I’ve worked within a top-level company as a reader for a couple years. Readers are the gateway that a script must pass through to get to the higher-ups. To do this, readers must write what is known as coverage and then stamp the script as either consider, pass and sometimes in-between.
How many scripts do I pass? More than I want to. The reason? Simple. Readers are youth oriented. The one thing you have to understand is that most readers nowadays at companies are the interns. This means the age of readers vary between teenager and early twenties. If you look at the films doing well within these age-brackets, reports show (or if you ask us) that originality is in.
Oftentimes scripts are sent in that are unoriginal. The twists, themes, everything has been done before and better. The thinking here might be “Hollywood likes to play it safe,” while that is true – there always has to be something new, unique and original enough about it. It’s rare that I pass a script that “plays by the books” and when I do it’s because there is at least some aspect that is original enough that it bypasses the weaker points. The flip-point to this though is the “too original” script. These scripts are way too out there that the reader has to question if they were smoking pot. This may be seen as a put down to some, but movies about Nazi Zombies and Karate Robots? Ain’t gonna fly. Not even Nazi Zombies Vs. Karate Robots. Or at least not with every company, be careful whom you send these flicks out to.
The other thing that sticks out is a bumpy start. In the first twenty minutes establish your characters, the rules, and the story. The reader shouldn’t be at page fifty still wondering when the movie’s going to start. Make it as tight as possible. I’ve seen professional scripts that are only 89 pages long. As a reader, believe me, we dig those. The shorter, the better and with this in mind you can always make it tighter.
Sometimes a writer manages to capture interest off the bat then loses it. Only thing I can contribute to this is the belief that the job’s said and done. Often times what I find is the beginning is fresh and original then it falls apart with a cliche ending that follows classic Hollywood staples to a T. Make sure your ending is just as original as what came before it.
The story should be grounded in something. There should be some sense of reality about it. All movies, even the most absurd, have some connection to everyday life. Piranha 3D for example connected it back to the prehistoric age. It was throwaway information, but it still grounded it and that film wasn’t meant to be serious. If you want to be taken seriously, take your script seriously. Make sure there’s some gravitas to it.
Plot is essential. Don’t string a lot of events into a movie hoping the order will reveal a story. Make sure that everything happens for an exact reason and logic. I can’t count the number of times where a script is filled with no real connective tissue between the events and seems like skits combined. It should be easy to write in a single page, but not overly so.
I often find characters that prove to be bi-polar. One second the characters acts like a child, the next they’re a philosopher. If you’re going to have a jump in logic, make it reasonable that such a jump can be made from what came prior to it. If not, you’ve just lost the reader.
Have dialogue be exact to how people would talk. There are times when some characters exist only for exposition and this comes through in the way that they carry themselves. Oftentimes, it feels like reading a textbook rather than someone speaking. Also be wary of voiceovers. Every character also has to have a distinct voice, imagine an actor in a role and tailor it towards them – because that’s what better helps a reader imagine it. The writer’s job is to make it easily “visible” as a film.
Marketability. I hate talking about this, but I have to. John Hughes once stated, and I highly think everyone should do this, that before he wrote a film he had to first see the trailer and the poster in his mind. He had to know exactly what he was writing, who he was writing it to and why it exists. Why is this important? You can’t sell us a script if you don’t know what you’re selling. A reader has to sum a script up in very little words, if the writer makes this difficult – we hate that script. Also it’s something that has to catch on.
This doesn’t mean ‘selling out.’ I’ve seen some scripts with 80-year-old action heroes built around wild set pieces, not everyone wants to see grandpa diving off towers. Make it suitable for that audience, decide whether you want the next Tom Cruise film or Clint Eastwood flick. Or middle grounds, Bruce Willis.
Formatting is also important. I’ve read scripts before that came off as a video game. One such story detailed a demon war going on inside hell. It was overly complicated to follow for a script that basically only revolved around demons fighting each other. Adding insult to injury, make sure supernatural entities sound normal rather than archetypes. Basically, write them the same as you would anyone else – just with a few extra quirks.
The average day in the life for a reader is to arrive to work, or work from home, and receive a script to three scripts sometimes more per day. I hate to say it, readers have prejudice against the writer from page ten or earlier. Because if it’s a bad script, they’re going to see all the flaws and tear it apart sometimes making it the office joke. If it’s a good script, however, even mediocre – it’ll at least be considered. Therefore make sure it starts off with a bang to keep the reader wanting more. Also make sure it’s a script that either can’t be put down or can be picked back up easily because sometimes a reader could be asked to make a coffee run depending on what their full position entails.
So what does this mean for you? Make your film unique, original and clever. Don’t make it too original that it’s hard to follow. Make sure the characters are well developed and sound normal rather than dictators of exposition. Make sure it’s not overly complicated, side-note: you’ll know this if you don’t need to fill the script with exposition. Make sure it’s spelled correctly – one can’t believe the number of typos I see. Make it marketable!
Page count? Within reasonability it doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t go over 120 on spec from first time writers (we actually check IMDB, sometimes it either makes or breaks the writer), as said I’ve seen 89 paged professional scripts on spec. Formatting? I’ve also seen one that was in the first-person, not important essentially.
Notes that I’ve received from executives: every line of dialogue the characters say should reveal something about their character, mood, plot, something. Every scene should have a beginning, middle and end; there should also usually be some sense of conflict no matter how short the scene. Sometimes it’s only a couple words difference that makes a huge difference. “Based on a true story,” no one cares how much of it is true – only 10% or less could be true and the execs could care less as long as it’s entertaining. Don’t worry about film school, forget all the rules you learned – in the end, that doesn’t apply. Those are things I’ve learned from execs during meetings.
I know that this article may come as a hard wake up call to some. As a reader, I want to read scripts that interest me and that I can consider. I hate reading a script and having to ‘pass’ it, if the writing intrigues me but I don’t see potential in the story at the very least I try to build that writer up in the coverage. I want to see people succeed. This is just my way of trying to show others what readers look for within the industry and how to pass through that “gate” to reach the executives. Keep your heads up, play the game, beat it – win.
Truth is, Hollywood Readers are the same as anyone. They could be your neighbor. So, before you send it in – send it to them to read, even those unaffiliated with the film industry because essentially in the end it’s their thoughts that really count when all is said and done on the big screen. They’re your audience.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I’m an intern/reader at one of the top companies and a recent graduate. I’ve already been in writer-meetings with the executives. The executives are currently considering one of the screenplays I’ve submitted. I also consider myself to be one of the ‘lighter’ readers because it doesn’t take much to entertain me – as Robert Downey Jr. once said, it just has to have something good about it that sticks out.